The 6 Key Ingredients For Learning Greek and Hebrew Vocabulary

September 19, 2022 // Nick Messmer


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Vocabulary is one of the most important pieces of learning Greek and Hebrew. Vocabulary gives you a glimpse into the biblical world and how it was understood. Vocabulary opens the door to reading new texts, and reading them with greater comprehension and fluency. Unfortunately, vocabulary is also one of the areas that learners struggle with the most.
A typical first-year Greek or Hebrew curriculum covers roughly 300-600 words. Many students struggle to keep up with this pace, and most fail to retain a bulk of the words as they progress beyond first year. Here's the problem: for the Greek New Testament, for example, you need to know upwards of 1,000 words to even begin reading easier portions, like the Gospel of John, with comprehension.
By comparison, in the field of Second Language Acquisition, there is a lot of empirical data suggesting that you can effectively learn more than 1,000 words per year.
So why do we struggle so much with Greek and Hebrew vocabulary, and how can we grow our vocabulary knowledge more effectively and efficiently?

The Goals of Vocabulary Learning

Before we dive into tips for effective vocabulary learning, it's important to clarify what our goals are when learning vocabulary. At a fundamental level, the two main goals can be thought of in terms of depth and breadth of knowledge.
The depth of our knowledge about a particular word has 3 stages: learning, retention, and a retrieval. The learning stage primarily involves making a mental association between the word and some meaning that it represents. The retention stage involves transferring that word-meaning association to your long-term memory. When this is done successfully, you no longer have to continually review the word in order to remember it. It's kind of like riding bike - you've learned it in such a way that it is not easily lost. Finally, the retrieval stage involves recalling that word-meaning association from your memory in order to use it - whether in the context of reading, listening, writing, or speaking.
The important thing to note is that these are three distinct activities that require different functions of your brain. For example, have you ever had the experience where a word is "on the tip of your tongue"? You know you know it, but it just won't come out? This happens when you have successfully stored something in your long-term memory, but you're struggle to retrieve it! In terms of language learning, the term "fluency" is most accurately used to describe the retrieval process - you've become fluent with language when you can effectively and efficiently retrieve it for the purposes of using it.
So when it comes to learning new vocabulary, one goal is depth of knowledge. We want to make a strong word-meaning association, transfer that knowledge to our long-term memory, and develop the ability to retrieve that knowledge fluently.
The other goal is breadth of knowledge. Words generally don't have a one precise meaning that can be captured by a single gloss or definition. Instead, they typically have various sense that make up the word's range of meaning. Words can also typically appear in multiple morphological forms to represent gender, number, tense, aspect, or some other grammatical feature. Now, you can't learn every sense and every form of a word all at once. Instead, the goal of vocabulary learning should be to continually expand the breadth of our knowledge of words.

Now that we have a better understanding of the goal of vocabulary learning, let's talk about how we can do it most effectively and efficiently. Here are 6 key ingredients for effective vocabulary learning!

Ingredient #1: Spaced Repetition

The first is spaced repetition. Perhaps it's obvious that repetition is important for learning vocabulary. You're not going to effectively learn a word by only looking at it once. But when you do your repetitions is just as important! Spaced repetition is the principle of studying a word repeatedly in several sessions that are spaced out over time.

This is contrasted with massed repetition, which involves repeating the word over and over in one session. In other words, it's much more effective to study a word once per day over 10 days than it is to repeat the word 10 times in a row. There is some debate over whether the intervals should be evenly spaced or whether your intervals should get increasingly longer, but research has tended to favor gradually increased intervals.
Spaced repetition is not only the first ingredient, but also the foundational ingredient. The other 6 ingredients are ways to get the most out of your repetitions by deepening the quality of your mental processing. In this sense, all the ingredients can be summed up by the quantity and quality of repetitions.

Ingredient #2: Retrieval Practice

The second ingredient is retrieval practice. Retrieval, as we discussed earlier, is the process of deliberately recalling information from memory, without being reminded of that information beforehand. There are ways of studying vocabulary that don't involve retrieval. For example, if you simply read the Greek word and then read an English gloss, you are studying the word-meaning association, but it doesn't require you to retrieve anything from memory. All the information is right there in front of you. This is sometimes referred to as restudy.

By contrast, retrieval practice would involve looking at the Greek word, and trying to remember the English gloss - or vice versa. Retrieval practice has been shown to be more effective than restudy for transferring knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. But that doesn't mean restudy can't be useful. Restudy is often early on in learning a new word, before you know it well enough to practice retrieving it. But as you continue your repetitions, you should try to practice retrieval more and more.

Ingredient #3: Varied Repetition

The third ingredient is varied repetition. This means encountering the word in varied ways, including different forms of the word, different meanings or senses of the word, and different contexts in which the word can be used. For example, you'll learn a Greek noun more effectively if you see it in singular and plural forms, and in nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative forms.

As discussed earlier, words have a range of meaning, and that range can often be divided up into meaningfully distinct senses. Seeing a word used according to its various senses will both broaden your knowledge of the word and strengthen your retention of the word.

Varied contexts may refer to syntactic contexts or discourse contexts. In other words, seeing the word used in connection with other words as well as in relation to different topics and genres will make the word more memorable.

By contrast, verbatim repetition means repeating a word over and over with the same form, meaning, and context. This is what you typically get with flashcards and other exercises where you study a word in isolation. Like restudy, verbatim repetition can be helpful, especially for brand new words, but you want to try to move toward varied repetition as much as you can.

Ingredient #4: Elaboration 

The fourth ingredient is elaboration. According to Paul Nation, elaboration "includes a variety of ways of providing elaborative, analytical, and enriching processing of vocabulary." This is quite a broad category, but it essentially means doing anything you can to process a word more deeply and meaningfully.

A great way to do this is using language in the context of genuine communication. Connecting a word to actions, to something being described, or to a real-life situation, especially in a context where you are trying to understand someone or to be understood, creates a more memorable experience with the word. Another great means of elaboration is using images or other visuals to represent a word. Other activities include semantic mapping, where you make connections between words with similar or related meanings, or word part analysis, where you break a word down into its various parts, and try to understand how each part contributes to the meaning of the word.

Some of these activities can take quite a long time, so it's important to keep in mind that you don't need to do them with every word. For easy words, you may be able to learn them well with simple verbatim repetition. But the more difficult the word, the more important it is to incorporate elaboration.

Ingredient #5: Production Practice

The fifth ingredient is production practice. There are four language skills: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. These can be divided up between receptive skills and productive skills. Reading and listening are receptive skills, because they involve receiving some language input. Writing and speaking are productive skills, because they involve producing language output.

Using vocabulary in the context of production requires deeper processing than in the context of reception. It's important to note, though, that genuine production involves retrieval. In other words, it only counts as production if you're actually recalling the word from memory in order to use it to produce a message. Writing and speaking don't count as production if you're merely copying or repeating something. Copying or repeating can be helpful exercises, but they don't count as productive use.

Production practice has been shown to improve not only productive skills, but also receptive skills. So practicing speaking and writing with vocabulary you're learning will actually improve your ability to read and comprehend the words.

Ingredient #6: Motivation

The sixth and final ingredient is perhaps the most important: motivation. This ingredient may seem so obvious that it's not worth mentioning. Motivation has been shown to be one of the most important factors for effective language learning and sustained progress.

There are all sorts of ways to sustain motivation through months and years of building your vocabulary. Join a community of other learners for encouragement and accountability. Incorporate vocabulary practice into your day-to-day life. Find fun and enjoyable ways to learn vocabulary, such as reading stories, having conversations, or acting things out. Set achievable goals and track your progress.

One of the most effective ways you can sustain motivation is actually by following the other 5 ingredients we've discussed here. Not only do these ingredients make learning more enjoyable by incorporating variety and stretching your abilities, but they're also effective - and nothing is more motivating than feeling like you're actually learning.

Incorporating the Key Ingredients

Those are the 6 key ingredients to effective vocabulary learning: spaced repetition, retrieval practice, varied repetition, elaboration, production practice, and motivation.
Now, you may be wondering: how can ensure I'm incorporating all these ingredients into my vocabulary learning routine? This can be a major challenge, because it involves having a large variety volume of input in the language and a lot of opportunity to practice using the language. When it comes to modern languages, this is much easier. There are countless books, movies, and podcasts you can access for input, and there are native speakers or other learners who you can practice with. But when it comes to the biblical languages, there are far fewer resources.

Sure, there are plenty of textbooks and courses available. But these typically don't give you large volumes of input with a controlled vocabulary specifically at your proficiency level. Nor do they give you the opportunity to practice output while receiving feedback and corrections. In other words, when it comes to vocabulary practice, you typically get restudy rather than retrieval practice, verbatim rather than varied repetition, minimal elaboration, and receptive rather than production practice. And textbooks don't tend to be very motivating.
There are a handful of good resources out there that you can piece together to try to incorporate as many of these ingredients as you can: a textbook, a workbook, a flashcard app, some YouTube videos. But if you want a resource where you can get all 6 ingredients in one place, then you need to check out Biblingo. Biblingo provides the resources, the system, and the motivation you need to learn, retain, and develop fluency with the biblical languages - all in one place. Our structured curriculum covers over 1,000 vocabulary words and is designed to be completed in one year, but you can progress at any pace you'd like. After that, you can continue building your vocabulary knowledge through the Bible Reading module and with custom flashcard decks.

Biblingo incorporates all 6 key ingredients for effective vocabulary learning: spaced repetition with auto-generated review decks, retrieval practice with flashcard and reading exercises, varied repetition with practice sentences and short stories, elaboration with visuals and semantic domains, and production practice with typing and speaking exercises. And all of this is designed to keep you motivated, along with custom learning plans to set goals, a dashboard to track your progress, and a community of learners to encourage you.
If you want to experience the power of these 6 ingredients for yourself, go to and start your 10-day free trial today.

Paul Nation

These "key ingredients" are inspired by Paul Nation's work on vocabulary acquisition. Paul Nation is a world-renowned scholar of applied linguistics who specializes in the teaching and learning of vocabulary and language teaching methodology.

You can find a bibliography of his publications, many of which are available online for free, here: Paul Nation's publications

You can find a specific article where Nation discusses many of these key ingredients at length here: "How vocabulary is learned"